Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Marie Antoinette and the Pouf

Marie Antoinette's husband, Louis XVI,was crowned King of France on June 11, 1774. All eyes should have been on the King, but instead were on Marie Antoinette and her pouf hairstyle.

Although Marie Antoinette's gown was "covered in sapphires, other gemstones, and ornate but fanciful embroidery", it was her hairstyle that drew the most attention. With heavily-powdered hair teased high above her forehead and topped with a cluster of white ostrich feathers, her face appeared to be the midpoint between the top of her hair and the hem of her gown. It was the debut of the pouf.

Developed in conjunction with hairdresser Monsieur Leonard, the pouf consisted of a scaffolding made from wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair, with the wearer's own hair teased high off the forehead. On top of this huge confection of hair was a display of feathers, flowers, vegetables or other objects designed to express a topical message. For example, Marie-Antoinette commissioned a huge pouf showcasing an intricate hairdo displaying a French frigate that won a key victory against the British in June 1778.

The pouf was not an easy hairstyle to adopt. The underlying contraption was heavy and difficult to sleep in. Marie Antoinette would have had to wrap her head in a huge bandage-like wrap and sleep semi-upright. And since grease was used to "glue" the hair in place, the pouf was impossible to wash and fostered breeding grounds for vermin. But this did not stop other women from emulating the French Queen of Fashion. One lady of the court declared "I shall never again wear anything but vegetables! It looks so simple, and is so much more natural even than flowers!"

Unfortunately, the pouf also corresponded to a time of bad harvests and harsh winters (1774-75). Appearing at the opera, theatre and parties in her wedding cake-like coiffure, Marie Antoinette flouted her fashion-plate lifestyle in the face of a starving nation. No doubt it was particularly horrifying to hungry peasants that the whiteness of the pouf coiffure came from flour. Popular opinion turned from admiration to distaste and Marie Antoinette's willingness to consider more serious matters was questioned. It was the beginning of the end for this fashion icon.